In her performance piece “A Land Twice Promised,” Noa Baum tells childhood stories of herself and a woman she became friends with as an adult. There are similarities — both grew up in Jerusalem in the years before 1967 — but there is one crucial difference: Baum is Jewish, her friend, Jumana, is Palestinian.
In the piece, Baum, 58, does not shy away from some of the striking disparities that arose from that one core difference. For example, while Jumana is haunted by fear of the Israeli soldiers who patrolled the streets of Jerusalem when she was a girl, Baum shares her family’s pride in those same soldiers, whom they call “our boys.”
Baum will present “A Land Twice Promised” at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit on Sunday, May 21.
The piece is based on a series of difficult conversations she and Jumana had seven years into their friendship. They met at a picnic in Davis, Calif., which both attended with their newborns. In a segment posted on YouTube, Baum recounts that first meeting. While they immediately recognized their common roots in the Middle East, when they told each other their babies’ names — Jumana’s was the Arabic Tamir, Baum’s the Hebrew Itai — they also recognized they could have a deep antipathy. “I didn’t know if she’d want to talk to me,” Baum told NJJN in a phone conversation just before Passover. “She didn’t know if I’d want to talk to her.”
But they did want to talk to each other and became friends, and at some point, Jumana agreed to share stories of her childhood with Baum.
“I realized that this woman I was friends with grew up in Jerusalem, five miles from me,” said Baum. “I had never heard what it was like for her. I was embarrassed that it never occurred to me to wonder what it was like for her.”
She acknowledged that Jumana’s stories were at times hard to hear. “For me, ‘them’ was always the Palestinians,” Baum said. “All of a sudden, ‘them’ was my people.” The experience was an exercise in listening to the other, she said, something she has tried to recreate in her performance of “A Land Twice Promised.”
“I’m not here to tell the suffering of the Palestinians or the suffering of the Jews. I’m here to tell a story. This is a woman I met on the playground. This is her story. This is my story. That’s all I do.”
The process of creating the performance out of the raw oral history is captured in Baum’s memoir, “A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace,” published in 2016 by Familius.
The piece marked her first foray out of the realm of stories and folktales for children and into her own life from an adult perspective. Previously, she said, understanding the difficulty of working as a storyteller in a culture not her own, “I wouldn’t dare tell the story of where I grew up. How would I frame the complex reality for an American audience?” But she eventually recognized that while producing the piece would be much harder than crafting stories for children — it took her nearly five years to create it — if done well, it could be very powerful. “I had insecurities and demons. But underneath there was a little voice that said if you don’t take risks, you will never grow as an artist.”
She now views storytelling as a way to make the world a better place. “It’s not just about art; all art has meaning and the potential for transforming and creating change in the world,” she said — not by changing people’s opinions, but by offering a new perspective.
Baum is a storyteller, educator, and public speaker who holds a master’s degree in educational theater from NYU and performs internationally at venues ranging from The Kennedy Center to the Jewish Theological Seminary. The recipient of a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award and a Storytelling World Award, she has been featured on Public Radio International. In addition to her performances, she custom designs workshops for people in different fields, working with everyone from law students to members of the National Guard. “I love to translate what I do to help people do what they do,” she explained.
Her stories come from chasidic lore, other cultures’ folktales, and personal experiences, and even include the story of her own name. Stating that she is equally comfortable in religious, secular, corporate, and educational settings, she acknowledged that each story changes based on the audience.
“The listener creates the story because the story only exists in the imagination of the listener. I don’t use props; there’s no video. The images are not given. You create them through my presence, my voice, my words. So in that sense, it’s never the same,” she said. “The quality of the listening creates the nuances and rhythm.” But paradoxically, she added, “The truth is always the same.”
Perhaps there are differences, but viewings on YouTube do reveal similarities in different performances of the same pieces.
That could be a result of the intensive work that goes into every story Baum takes on.
“When you craft a story, it’s not about the facts, but the truth,” Baum said. So “everything in the story really happened, but not everything that happened is in the story. The art is the act of choosing: what of what happened to keep, what of what happened to discard, what of what happened to emphasize, and what of what happened to de-emphasize.”
She added, “Just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s a story. Why would someone listen if it doesn’t resonate with your life? For it to have universal resonance, it must be crafted.”